As Americans celebrate Earth Day, one author is speaking out about how people have been disconnecting from nature over the last 30 years, as lifestyles have changed.
Richard Louv describes it as almost the perfect storm – the events that have slowly unplugged people from nature. Louv grew up in suburban Kansas City playing in the woods near his home and building forts. He says nature was hugely important to him then but he didn’t know why.
In the 1980s, while researching his first book "Childhood’s Future" he noticed a profound change in the relationship between children and nature. Video games and computers were beginning to take hold and parents were increasingly comforted with kids indoors. Louv says the 24-hour news cycle reinforced fears about the dangers of the world…
“Stranger danger is high on the list even though for the last 30 years at least violent crimes towards children outside the home have actually been going down," Louv said. "Now, it’s hard to believe that when you watch television, but that is statistically true – not in all neighborhoods but many. Yet our fear of nature keeps going up.”
Louv began tracking studies on the deficits of nature in children’s lives and the research about the benefits of nature. He penned two books on the issues; "Last Child in the Woods" and "The Nature Principle." Louv notes many American children today face problems with obesity, diabetes, being diagnosed on the autism spectrum and attention deficit disorder.
“And what do we do with these kids? We put them in school. We put them at a desk. We make them sit. We make them take tests again and again and again. We lengthen the school year. We drop or reduce recess. We cut out field trips. And then we expect different behavior? And then we give them drugs when they act out," Louv said. "Meanwhile, research at the University of Illinois shows just a little bit of contact with nature and those symptoms for attention deficit disorder go down, significantly. Just a walk through trees in an urban park, in urban Chicago, that’s where these studies are being done.”
Louv also cites new research from the IU School of Medicine and the University of Washington.
“The greener the urban neighborhood, the lower the rate of child obesity in that neighborhood. And what they found was this was independent of population density. In other words, you can have a crowded inner-city neighborhood and still have it green. You can do it through green roofs and small parks and community gardens and schools with green school yards.”
Another worry of Louv’s is how young people describe the world of the future.
“The images that they describe look a lot like 'Bladerunner' and 'Mad Max' and at best 'The Hunger Games.' At least there are a few trees in that one," Louv said. "It’s a post-apocalyptic future. The number one young adult fiction genre now is called dystopic fiction. It’s about a world in which not even vampires are having a good time.”
Louv says he wants to push past the popular term “sustainability” for a more optimistic vision.
“I talk about a nature-rich future, nature-rich homes, nature-rich schools, nature-rich neighborhoods, nature-rich cities. What would that be like? I find that students in particular resonate to that," Louv said. "Martin Luther King said and demonstrated in many ways any culture, any movement – any culture, will fail if it cannot paint a picture of world that people will want to go to.”
Louv spoke at Depauw University recently as part of its Environmental Fellows Program speakers series.